22 April 2005
The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees. - Erwin Schrödinger
Atomic philosophers have been in existence since the times of Leucippus and Democritus, around 430 B.C. Despite that fact that Democritus existed centuries before even cells were visible for human observation, he developed a basic theory of atomic structure to explain the nature of the world. This theory is still in widespread existence today, and remains a viable explanation for both the construction and transformation of objects.
The word “atom” means un-cuttable, and Democritus believed that everything was made up of small, indivisible, eternal blocks. These blocks acted similarly to Legos, or Velcro; different pieces were shaped differently, and were able to be “hooked” together, to form larger objects. When something disintegrates, it reverts to atomic form and the atoms can be used in the construction of other objects. Democritus was also a materialist; he believed that all that existed in the world could be explained by the presence of atoms, and void. This also correlates to current beliefs; modern science generally concedes that atoms exist in a vacuum, and that in fact, everything is almost completely composed of empty space. What differs between these two theories is that Democritus, as a materialist, did not believe in forces. Our theories rest on the idea of forces between atoms (and particles of atoms, which would be the atoms of Democritus’s theory, since they are the actual “un-cuttables”).
Democritus’s theory was an explanation for the problematic issue of change. It was his attempt to explain how things can grow, and transform, while accepting the facts that nothing can spontaneously pop into existence, and nothing that exists can become, nothing. Naturally, a theory in which things are made up of smaller, eternal things, that can be rearranged to form other larger things, takes care of this problem. So in addition to being an early atomic theory, it is also an early conservation theory.
Now that Democritus’s view of atomic theory has been briefly overviewed, we can move on to other speculations. These speculations will be stated in a dialogic form. Why, you ask? Well it’s very simple. Conversation sparks controversy. Controversy sparks a drive towards resolution. Resolution brings understanding. The rest of this paper will not be a restatement of Democritus’s view, per se, but rather an extrapolation of his atomic theory into an area of modern consideration.
“If the world is made up of tiny, small pieces, why do I see it as a continuous object?”
“Well, here’s one way to examine this. First, find a computer. Turn it on, and look at the screen. What do you see? Well, chances are that you see a Windows logo. Once you dig around a bit, you find that you can apparently open up a number of windows that show pictures, words, and even some that trigger sound. Is any of that really there? Of course not. What is actually there are numerous series of two digits, repeated over and over in different orders. Ones and zeros. “
“I don’t think that works… if the world is like computer code then we’re all living in something that doesn’t actually exist, like the Matrix.”
“Not necessarily. Think of computer code as a sort of primitive version of atoms or as a numerical equivalent to them. If we were computer people, computer code would be our natural state of existence.”
“But what controls the code? I mean you have the atoms, which are like numbers. But how do they join together to become something else?”
“Well, Democritus’s view was that nature works as a machine. It is a complex mechanism that acts according to laws of necessity. There is no conscious design to it, the atoms would just naturally tend towards certain constructions.”
“If Democritus didn’t believe in anything except void and body, and he thought it was all mechanical, then he must not have believed in souls, or God.”
“Democritus did believe in souls, but he assumed that they were also physical. Souls, according to him, were made up of their own special “soul” atoms. "
“Even so, where do the atoms themselves come from? If there’s no God in his theory, how can the atoms have begun?”
“They are perpetual. They always existed and always will exist. They are perfect and eternal… now what does that remind you of?”
“Correct. So Democritus’s atomic theory does have a Godlike presence, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess it does. And it makes as much sense as an actual comprehensive being. But the specifics of his theory still seem rather unlikely, like the hooks.”
“Naturally we’ve developed more complex ideas of those specifics as we’ve gone along. Democritus’s great contribution wasn’t in the specifics of the theory, it was in giving us a basis on which we build, and develop a more sophisticated theory. For instance, consider our modern atoms. What holds them together?”
“The positive and negative charges… different energy fields.”
“But Democritus didn’t believe that there were forces like that. Does that mean we should discount his entire atomic theory, simply because part of it may be wrong?”
“No… you should keep the parts that work.”
“So what are the parts that work?”
“The world is made up of small indivisible pieces that can be rearranged to form the things we see. They aren’t arranged by a divine being, but rather by necessity. However, since the atoms themselves are by necessity God-like, then the idea a divine being is still possible, right?”
“Yes, it is. What else?”
“Conservation of energy or mass. It seems like the main things that we get from this are basic scientific principles. One thing that I don’t understand though, is whether or not this allows for free will. If everything is mechanical, then how can we possibly be the free willed creatures that we feel we are? And is that the same thing as fate?”
“Not at all. As far as that goes, I think Democritus had a very good basis. Consider this. If you throw a plate against a wall, and it shatters, do you call it fate?”
“Of course not. It’s an effect from the plate hitting the wall.”
“Good. You can consider that cause and effect, or consequence, to be the mechanism by which Democritus’s theory works.”
“But how does that explain the free will?”
“I’ll give you another exanple. If you push a key on a keyboard, and a letter pops onto the computer screen, is that fate?”
“Can you tell me how it happens?”
“Well… not exactly, but I know that the keyboard sends a message to the computer, which encodes the letter and shows it on the screen.”
“Even though you don’t know exactly how it happens, you accept that it’s an effect from you pushing the button. Now consider this. Free will is not an illusion. We have free will, but we also have this mechanism of consequences, which is a natural mechanism that we must follow. Now… if you throw a cat against a wall with extreme force, will you kill it? Answer seriously, please.”
“Not necessarily… if the cat can grab something, or twist around, it should be ok.”
“Yes. So the consequence that would have occurred from the cat hitting the wall was changed by the cat’s actions. This is free will. We are still subject to the mechanism of consequence, but we are able to manipulate it. We add another cause to get another effect.”
“That makes sense. So when you take Democritus’s position and expand and supplement it, some of the problems that it presents can be worked out.”